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By Daniel Lammin
12th May 2013

Sometimes, even if a film is relatively straight forward, it can be incredibly hard to decipher. The narrative can be simple, the structure can be clear, but the execution itself can take such an unusual path that you're left afterwards feeling strangely satisfied but oddly disconnected. In the past few weeks, we had 'Spring Breakers' to throw us off balance. Now, far more subtly but still as unusual a puzzle, comes Miguel Gomes' 'Tabu', a Portuguese production so concerned with the ghosts of the past that the film itself literally reflects this - and often with stunning results.

The film is divided into two parts, with a short prologue. Part one, entitled 'Paradise Lost', set in modern Lisbon, follows a middle-aged woman, Pilar (Teresa Madruga), and her relationship with her elderly neighbour Aurora (Laura Soveral), who is slowly losing her grip on the world. Part two, 'Paradise', flies back in time to 1960s Africa and young Aurora (Ana Moreira) on a prosperous farm, where she begins an illicit affair with charismatic musician Ventura (Carloto Cotta).

While both parts of 'Tabu' are linked, not only by characters, but by black-and-white full-frame photography, Gomes separates them with a very slight but very startling aesthetic decision. His major influences in the look and rhythm of the film are the great silent films of the expressionist era, with nods to Murnau and Dreyer. The first part adheres strictly to a manipulation of light and shadow, and with the added definition of digital photography, the lines and textures on faces in particular becoming a prominent feature. Dialogue is always present, but 'Tabu' is far more interested in what isn't said than what is. For 'Paradise Lost', everything functions as expected in any European art film. And then it shifts time and place, and the film heads in a completely different artistic direction. Where the first portion was concerned with the manipulation of light, the second is concerned with the manipulation of sound. 'Paradise' is entirely without dialogue, except for a narration of Ventura as an older man recollecting his affair with Aurora. However, while it has no dialogue, it is alive with a rich, complex soundtrack. Imagine a scene with all the natural elements of sound completely in place, but when the actors open their mouths, nothing comes out. Suddenly we are thrown into a dream or a memory, where the textured elements are more potent to us than the words people speak. The film itself suddenly becomes grainy and dirty, the haze of time layered on top of it. Much of 'Tabu' is a reconciliation with the past, not only with the personal crimes of Aurora and Ventura, but the oppression of the native Africans as slaves and workers. If the first part presents us with a haunted present, the second shows us where these ghosts have come from.


These aesthetic challenges are beautifully overcome by the excellent cast, particularly Moriera and Cotta as the young lovers, who never speak a word in the film, but are forced to perform entirely through their physical relationship with the environment, those around them and each other. Madruga is terrific as Pilar, and while we never find out much about her, she is the calm antithesis to Soveral's batty older Aurora, a great performance full of the confusion and petulance of someone not entirely in control of herself. Also of note is Isabel Munoz Cardoso as Ventura's black nurse Santa, a constant, embittered reminder of the woman's past and the old woman's favourite target.

For all its artistic merits, 'Tabu' is still a hard film to come to grips with. There is a subtext running beneath it, but one that isn't always easy to decipher. Its references to silent film are great, but I wonder what it would be like for audiences who don't have that knowledge - it may just seem a tad esoteric. Thankfully, the charisma of the performances and the clarity of the storytelling holds the film together and justifies the strange artistic decisions. The second part, in particular, is a breathtaking piece of filmmaking, bold and dangerous, and for audiences willing to go with its strangeness, a rich offering. I seem to be saying this a lot of late in my reviews, but 'Tabu' isn't going to be for everyone. It's an odd little film, and one that may leave some cold at the end. But like any odd film, some will also find it thrilling and surprising. As always, the only way to know is to try, and much like 'Spring Breakers' or 'Cloud Atlas' or 'The Paperboy', these bold experiments in form and genre are always deserving of an audience.

RELEASE DATE: 16/05/2013
RUN TIME: 1h 58m
CAST: Teresa Madruga - Pilar
Laura Soveral - Aurora
Ana Moreira
Carloto Cotta
DIRECTOR: Miguel Gomes
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